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Full text of "An American man of letters"

An American Man of Letters 



COLLIER COBB 



Reprinted fiotn 
The University of North Carolina Magazine 

October, 1909 
The North Carolina Review, October 3, 1909 



Digitized by tine Internet Arciiive 

in 201i witii funding from 

University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill 



http://www.archive.org/details/americanmanoflet121cobb 



\ 



The University Magazine 

OCTOBER, 1909 
Old Series, Vol. 40 No. J New Series, Vol. 27 



AN AMERICAN MAN OF LETTERS 



Collier Cobb 



A slave who owned his master; a poet ignorant of the rules 
of prosody; a man of letters l)efore he had learned to read; a 
writer of short stories who published in several papers simul- 
taneously before the day of newspaper syndicates ; an author 
who supported himself and his family in an intellectual cen- 
ter liefore authorship had attained to the dignity of a pro- 
fession in America: such was Geoi'ge Horton, a negro, Ixjrn 
in North Carolina, in 1798. 

Like all the members of his race, he was fond of melody 
and devoted to church going; and to this religious impulse he 
owed the cultivation of a poetic temperament, and the oppor- 
tunity to study tlie structure of the short story. 

My attention was drawn to his Avork several years ago by 
some verses of his written for a lady's album in 1840, to the 
authorship of Avhich he had relinquished all claim for twenty- 
five cents. The quality of the verse and the story of its 
author led me to look into tlie man's history and to 
search for his work in the tiles of the newspapers of his day. 

George was the property of Mr. James Horton, of Chat- 
ham County. He was a full-blooded black man, something 
like the type known today as negroid, yet more Aryan than 
Semitic in features, and more like the natives of India and 
Northern Africa, than the negro south of the Sahara. He 
himself, Othello like, boasted of the purity of his black 



4 The University Magazine 

blood. Such is the description I get of his personal appear- 
ance from old residents of Chapel Hill, who knew him in his 
prime. 

George lived on the plantation of his master, where he 
made a pretense of working on the farm, until he was about 
thirty-three years old. His time in winter was spent large- 
ly in fishing and hunting, and in some slight personal ser- 
vice for his master. His summers were devoted mainly to 
protracted meetings. He became familiar with the Bible 
from hearing it read, and Avith the melodies of the Metho- 
dist hymnal, which were constantly ringing in his ears. 

From these sources he gained his sole knowledge of stories 
and of verse. On hearing some verses read from an odd 
number of the North Carolina University Magazine, he asked 
his master's permission to visit Chapel Hill and get acquain- 
ted with the young jnasters who did such work. 

When he reached the university town, his gift of versifica- 
tion secured for him ready employment. He composed 
acrostics on ladies' names, and love songs and other amorous 
verses for ladies' albums. He was also actively employed in 
the production of love letters. George found his new ven- 
ture so profitable that he offered his owner fifty cents a day 
for his time, which was worth nothing on the farm. Soon 
his verses appeared in the University Magazine, some of the 
young masters claiming the authorship. All his lines were 
written down by others from his dictation, for he had never 
learned to write. Hie had learned to read, however, by the 
use of his Wesleyan hymn book, and learned his words 
before he learned his letters, thus anticipating a method of 
the new education. The laws of the State forbade the teach- 
ing of slaves, but George learned to read without a teacher, 
and his master knew nothing of his accomplishments until 
he was shown some of his verses. 

One of George's earlier efforts at Chapel Hill, inspired by 
the half-dollar of an aspiring Sopliomore, who nightly wan- 
dered in the neighborhood of Piney Prospect, ran thus: 



An American Man of Letters 5 

At length the silver queen begins to rise, 
And spread her glowing mantle in the skies, 
And from the smiling chambers of the east. 
Invites the eye to her resplendent feast. 

The poet begged a blue-backed sioelling book, and from 
this learned his letters, with what assistance no one ever 
knew. Later he learned to spell by matching the words in 
his hymnal, which he already knew by heart and by sight, 
with the words in the spelling book. In this way, he learned 
to read his Bible. Thus, entirely unaided by instruction, he 
learned to read and made the acquaintance of grammar and 
prosody, acquiring a simple straightforward style, and writ- 
ing good idiomatic English. 

Dr. Joseph Caldwell, president of the University, was 
interested in the gifted negro and lent him books, and 
George was not slow to add to his small store of the best in 
English literature. About this time, in 1829, Gales and 
Son printed at Raleigh several of his poems in a pamphlet, 
entitled "The Hope of Liberty", a collection made up entire- 
ly from his earlier efforts. From this pamphlet the follow- 
ing is taken: 

THE SLAVE'S COMPLAINT 

' 'Am I sadly cast aside, 
On misfortune's rugged tide? 
Will the world my pains deride 
Forever? 

"Must I dwell in Slavery's night, 
And all pleasure take its flight. 
Far beyond my feeble sight, 
Forever? 

"Worst of all, must hope grow dim, 
And withhold her cheering beam? 
Rather let me sleep and dream 
Forever ! 

"Something still my heart surveys. 
Groping through this dreary maze ; 
Is it Hope?J— then bum and blaze 
Forever ! 



6 The University Magazine 

"Leave me not a wretch confined, 
Altogetlier lame and blind, 
Unto gross despair consigned. 
Forever! 

"Heaven! in whom can I confide? 
Canst thou not for all provide? 
Condescend to be my guide 
Forever ! 

"And when transient life shall end, 
Oh may some kind eternal friend 
Bid me from servitude ascend, 
Forever ! ' ' 

George never really cared t'i)r more libertj^ than he liad, 
but he was fond of playing to the grand-stand. It was a 
common .saying in Chapel Hill that Poet Horton owned Mr. 
Horton and all but owned the president of the University. 

The next example of his woik is one of his earlier efforts 
in that style of verse making which won for him a liveli- 
hood and reputation at Chapel Hill. It is entitled: 

LOVE 

"Whilst tracing thy visage, I sink in emotion, 
For no other damsel so wond' rous I see ; 
Thy looks are so pleasing, thy charms so amazing, 
I think of no other, my true love, but thee. 

"With heart-burning rapture I gaze on thy beauty. 
And fly like a bird to the boughs of a tree; 
Thy looks are so pleasing, thy charms so amazing, 
I fancy no other, my true love, but thee. 

"Thus oft in the valley I think and I wonder 

Why cannot a maid with her lover agree? 
Thy looks are so pleasing, thy charms so amazing, 
I pine for no other, my true love, but thee. 

"I'd fly from thy frowns with a heart full of sorrow — 

Return, pretty damsel, and smile thou on me; 
By ev'ry endeavor, I'll try thee forever; 

And languish until I am fancied by thee. ' ' 

This, too, was written down from his dictation before its 
author had learned to write. 



An American Man of Letters 7 

The following stanza is from one of his poems of the same 
period : 

"Come melting Pity, from afar, 
And break this vast euormons bar, 

Between a wretch and thee ; 
Purchase a few short days of time, 
And bid a vassal soar sublime, 
On wings of Liberty." 

His work at Chapel Hill and his appeals to the sympathy 
of the students secured for him a small sum of money, with 
which he hoped to buy his freedom and a passage to Tiiberia ; 
but after the death of his patron, Dr. Caldwell, he gave him- 
self up to drink, and his little savings, with all tliat he could 
earn or beg, went for liquor. A favorite scheme of his for 
raising money was to write some verses setting forth the sick- 
ness and distress of his familj^ and closing with an appeal t(j 
the students to "lend a helping hand to the old unfortunate 
bard". This he would take from room to room and read, 
and his old employers in versification nearly always respond- 
ed liberally. Dr. Battle tells us in his history of the Univer- 
sity that "his manner was courteous, his moral character 
good. Like Byron, Burns, and Poe, he often quenched the 
divine spark with unpoetic wliiskey." 

I have on my table as I write a small volume of his poems 
published in 1838. Earlj'- in the fifties a small duodecimo 
volume of his verses was published in Boston along with his 
autobiography. Several short stories and numerous essays of 
his were also published about this time. 

He addressed the following verses to Horace G reel 3', and 
they appeared in the New York Tribune. 
THE POET'S PETITION 

"Bewailing 'mid the ruthless wave 
I lift my feeble hand to thee, 
Let me no longer be a slave, 

But drop the fetters and be free. 

* 'Why will regardless Fortune sleep 
Deaf to my penitential prayer. 



8 The University Magazine 

Or leave the struggling bard to weep, 
Alas! and languish in despair? 

"He is an eagle void of wings 

Aspiring to the mountain height, 
Yet in the vale aloud he sings 
For Pity's aid to give him flight. 

"Then listen all who never felt 
For fettered genius heretofore, 
Let hearts of petrification melt, 
And bid the gifted negro soar." 

Horton's versification had often been employed in singing 
the praises of the ladies, and he had written many an acros- 
tic and sung many a song in praise of Sally Maxwell, a 
charming young widow of Warrenton . For this work he re- 
ceived his highest prices, paid by the lovesick swains of 
Chapel Hill who spent their senior vacation in that delight- 
ful village. Miss Cheney of Connecticut, who afterwards be- 
came Mrs. Horace Greely, was teaching school at Warrenton, 
and, while making a short stay in New York on her way to 
North Carolina, met Greel}^ and still further enlisted his in- 
terest in the negro poet. 

When George's student employer was willing to pay as 
much as fifty cents, the poem was generously gushing. Hor- 
ton continued to live near Chapel Hill until the coming of 
the United States cavalry in 1865, when he accompanied an 
army officer to Philadelphia, and lived there until his death 
at an advanced age. 

He was fond of writing poems in pairs, matching one against 
the other. The result of his first effort in this direction was 
given to a young instructor in the University in recognition 
of some favor that ths poet had received at his hands : 
THE PLEASURE OF A BACHELOR'S LIFE 

O tell. me not of Wedlock's charms, 
Nor busy Hymen's galling chain, 

But rather let me fold my arms 

From pleasures which wiW end in pain. 



An American Man or Letters § 

'Tie true the primogenial flower 

Arose to please in Eden's grove, 
But did she not as soon devour 

The silly bee that sought her love? 
Then with content remain alone, 

But still on wings of pleasure soar, 
The storms of life will soon be gone, 

Perhaps, and to return no more. 

Without a surly wife to scold, 
Or children lo disturb your mind, 

To pillage o'er your chest for gold. 
And spend for trifles what they find. 

PAIN OF A BACHELOR'S LIFE 

When Adam dwelt in Eden's shade, 

His state was joyless there ; 
He then the general scene surveyed. 
No true delight the world dsiplayed 

To him witliout the fair. 

His mind was like the ocean's wave 

When rolling to and fro ; 
He seemed a creature doomed to crave, 
Too melancholy to be brave, 

AVheii ui) trra pleasure.-: flow. 

At length a sniiling woman rose, 

A bone from hi^ own side, 
The scene of pleasure to disclose 
An<l lull him into soft repose, 

The raptni-es of a bride 

Young bachelor whoe'er thou art 

Thy pleasures are but rare; 
A t]iorn will ever pierce thy heart 
Until fond nature takes its part 

Of comfort with the fair. 

His later work showed remotely and in some small meas- 
ure the influence of tliat group of Elizabethan poets who were 
wont to meet in tlie clvil»-room of the Mermaid Tavern, and, 
after he went to Philadelphia, he wrute a number of poems 
in imitation of Marlowe's "Passionate Shepherd to his Love" 
and "The Nymph's Reply" by Sir Walter Raleigh. 



10 The University Magazine 

It was in Philadelphia that he developed his gift of story 
telling, his stories being modelled on the old stories of the 
East, as he had learned them from his Bible and in many cases 
being bodily taken from the Scriptures and made modern as 
to names and places. In this he was even more success- 
ful than was Benjamin Franklin in his famous paraphrase of 
the Book of Job. The source (^f Horton's inspiration was 
alvnys liid from any but tlic closest students of Holy Writ, 
and even they did not often recognize tlieir old friends in 
modern dress. 

In yet another respect this poet would be a paradox in our 
day. He did very little work before reaching the age of 
forty, and the most productive period of liis life began when 
he was sixty-seven years old, continuing lill liis death at the 
age of eightv-five, in 1883. 

All the examples of his verse that I have given are selected 
from his earlier productions, written when he was still an 
unlettered slave.